Die Macht der Masse

Am Dienstag, den 1. April, fand in Hamburg die TEDx zum Thema „Urban Connectors“ statt – und einer der Speaker war Paul Hilder, Vice President of Global Campaigns bei change.org, der größten Plattform für Onlinepetitionen. Ich hatte die Gelegenheit, Paul Hilder per Email zu interviewen.

Foto: TEDx Hamburg
Paul Hilder, Vice President of Global Campaigns bei change.org (Foto: TEDx Hamburg)

Mr. Hilder, you are Vice President of Global Campaigns at change.org, a platform where everyone can start his or her own petition. How does your daily routine look like?
I spend most of my day talking to teams and leaders around the world about the campaigns our users are running and their stories of change. It’s a huge privilege to be able to support them! But to be honest: No two days are the same. I go from managing sudden crisis to long term strategy, from hour to hour.

Have you ever started a petition yourself?
Not yet. But I am thinking about a petition to my son’s school right now.

Are their many global competitions? What topics are of global interest?
The essence of online engagement on Change.org is often hugely local or national. Sometimes these initiatives can add up to large, global campaigns. We’ve seen a number of those, for example a cluster of national petitions to nominate Malala Yousafzai for the nobel peace prize. There were also many people across the globe who expressed great compassion about the rape case in the Indian bus. And then there were more than 500 authors worldwide who demanded an answer to increased online surveillance by the NSA and others, or – very recently – the fastest ever growing petition on our site was about the figure skating verdict at the Sotchi Olympics. In a nutshell: Globalization brings issues of public interest together across nations. And if you have an issue of public interest – you will usually find a petition about it on Change.org.

There were more than 500 authors worldwide who demanded an answer to increased online surveillance by the NSA and others.

What are the most obvious cultural differences you encounter in petitions from Germany compared to other countries?
Across the world, in any nation, you will find a dream and urge of people to change something, to improve their society for the better. In Germany you might find fewer campaigns about corruption than in other parts of the world! But many of the issues: education, health care, environment, refugee rights – are the same issues that people care about in other parts of the globe.

What was the petition that impressed you the most during your time at change.org?
I was hugely inspired by a campaign in Thailand launched by two rural school teachers who – within a week – had dominated the newspapers, met with the education minister, and persuaded him to reverse his decision to close 6,000 provincial schools.

You spoke at TEDx Hamburg with the main topic „Urban Connectors“: How is change.org helping people to connect? And do you have any numbers about how much your platform is used in urban areas compared to rural ones?
Online petitions are dramatically scaling the ability of people to organize without organizations. This is happening across age groups, education or income levels. You can find new allies in urban areas, in rural areas or across boundaries – it varies with the topic.

At the moment we see about 660 new petitions on our site every day.

How many petitions do get started a day globally/in Germany?
At the moment we see about 660 new petitions on our site every day on a global scale. In Germany the daily average is 10-20.

When do you call a petition a success?
Just like everything else that is connected to petitions on our site, the definition of success is also in the hands – and responsibility – of the petition starter. So if someone meets a decision maker, gets offered a compromise and thinks afterwards: “Wow, I got what I wanted” then it’s a success. But if someone says :”I want to keep fighting until I get what I came for” we respect that just as much.

Online participation platforms are often criticized for supporting a rather superficial activism, so called clicktivism. Do you think that there are topics that should rather be brought to the streets and others that work better online?
I think this stems from a time when we saw online petitions saying: “Dear UN, stop global warming by next year.” Today’s online petitions are much more specific. And it’s a great misunderstanding to say that campaigns on Change.org are „just online”. They are always started by actual people with actual problems. Many times petition starters use the supporter base from the online petition to organize further action – on- or offline. Like Bianca Kasting, who is leading a campaign to save the midwifes in Germany and who has contributed to mobilizing dozens of „classical demonstrations”, but also many online demonstrations and behind the scene lobbying.

Your platform is open for the whole democratic spectrum of political opinions. Why is it important for change.org to not take sides?
People from every country in the world have used our platform to create the change they want to see, from a woman in South Africa challenging corrective rape, to a man in India fighting corruption in his local government office, to a mum in Thailand stopping violent movies from being shown on public buses, to a 14-year-old girl in the U.S. ending photoshop in her favorite teen magazine.People are now using Change.org more than 20 languages to tackle everything from hyperlocal to systemic international problems – and they’re winning every single day. We firmly believe that this global empowerment has only been possible through our truly open platform – one that people of different geography, political stripes, and opinions can call their home for making change online. Inevitably, some people encounter one of these petitions and strongly agree with it, while others meet the same petition with fierce disapproval. We deem it our responsibility and privilege to provide an empowerment platform that welcomes all viewpoints.

On the other hand, change.org is financed by sponsored campaigns, that are not allowed to be discriminating in any way. But who decides that? And isn’ that sometimes a question of one’s political view if something is being seen as discriminating or not?
Like other prominent online platforms, we do not allow advertising with hateful or discriminatory content, and like all companies, we reserve the right to decline advertisements on a case-by-case basis to protect the best interests of the company and our users. It is true that you can construct cases in which you might sit on a fence about whether or not you accept a certain advertiser – but in reality this hasn’t happened so far.

Society is full of conflict and debate, sometimes debate about different sets of values. We want to be the place for these debates.

An example: In Germany, a very successful petition against the proposal to include tolerance for LGBT practices in the educational plan 2015 for schools was set up recently. Could something like that be published on change.org? Could it be sponsored?
The petition that you are referring to was running on openpetition.de. We know the folks there and we deeply respect their work. I don’t want to comment on a case that I don’t know enough about. Let me answer this in more general terms. What stories like these show us is: The controversy is intrinsic to the society and the debate therein, not first and foremost to the fact that it appears also on a platform. Society is full of conflict and debate, sometimes debate about different sets of values. We want to be the place for these debates. We firmly believe that debates about values should be brought to the table and we firmly believe that societies can very well manage disagreements and conflicts of values. But we also feel a strong sense of responsibility: We will always strive to ensure that a good culture of debate is always maintained and that people engage fairly and peacefully in championing the issues they care about.

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